A collection of poems penned by a late 19th Century Scotsman named William Topaz McGonagall drew considerable attention when they went up for auction in Edinburgh last Friday. Was this man the Robert Burns of his generation? Quite the opposite. McGonagall's poetry is celebrated in the U.K. for being astonishingly bad. Buyers were bidding on a literary Edsel.
Just how bad was McGonagall? Here are some reviews:
Scotland on Sunday noted his "tortuous rhyme and flagrant disregard for metre."
Nicholas Parsons, in The Joy of Bad Verse, points out that: "Few people have acquired a niche in history by producing what nobody applauded."
Stephen Pile, in his Book of Heroic Failures, raves: "He was so giftedly bad that he backed unwittingly into genius."
The poet Hugh MacDiarmid has offered a more erudite perspective, claiming McGonagall "was not a bad poet; still less a good bad poet. He was not a poet at all, and that he has become synonymous with bad poetry in Scotland is only a natural consequence of Scottish insensitivity to the qualities alike of good poetry and bad."
You only need to read McGonagall's best-known work "The Tay Bridge Disaster," to understand the disaster that was William McGonagall's poetry. He wrote the solemn verse to memorialize a bridge collapse that killed 75 people. Here's a taste of it:
So the train mov'd slowly along the Bridge of Tay,
Until it was about midway,
Then the central girders with a crash gave way,
And down went the train and passengers into the Tay.
Rhyming can be difficult sometimes (even John Keats admitted having to occasionally settle on a rhyme), but in these lines, McGonagall only had to think up three words that rhymed with "Tay"--we're not talking orange here--and he came up with one...which he repeated...and then he just wrote "Tay" again. He thinks of some more towards the end of the poem:
I must now conclude my lay By telling the world fearlessly without the least dismay, That your central girders would not have given way, At least many sensible men do say, Had they been supported on each side with buttresses, At least many sensible men confesses, For the stronger we our houses do build, The less chance we have of being killed.
Typical of McGonagall's verse, "The Tay Bridge Disaster" doesn't have a meter to speak of--it has more of a drunken ramble. You could call it accentual verse, with a three beat first line, then seven, then five...You know what? Let's just walk away.
Claims that McGonagall was a satirist, a clever pretender to literary wretchedness, have been debunked. This excerpt from his autobiography confirms he believed himself a poet.
"...Dame Fortune has been very kind to me by endowing me with the genius of poetry. I remember how I felt when I received the spirit of poetry. It was in the year of 1877, and in the month of June, when the flowers were in full bloom. Well, it being the holiday week in Dundee, I was sitting in my back room in Paton's Lane, Dundee, lamenting to myself because I couldn't get to the Highlands on holiday to see the beautiful scenery, when all of a sudden my body got inflamed, and instantly I was seized with a strong desire to write poetry, so strong, in fact, that in imagination I thought I heard a voice crying in my ears--"Write! Write!"
It's a wonder that he never heard the voices crying "Stop! Stop!"
McGonagall never stopped, once hiking 60 miles through a storm to ask Queen Victoria if he could be Poet Laureate. While he wasn't granted an audience, he did write a poem about his visit (the double meaning in the last line undoubtedly escaped him):
"Oh! it was a most gorgeous sight to be seen, Numerous foreign magnates were there for to see the Queen; And to the vast multitude there of women and men, Her Majesty for two hours showed herself to them."
It's hard not to smile at that. And there is something unwittingly brilliant about McGonagall's poetry. The poems at auction last week sold for a remarkable 6,600 pounds (about $13,000). So if that guy at your local coffee shop with the bad facial hair and bongos is selling something that passes for a book, you might want to pick up copy.